Islamic State militants are preventing more than 1,000 civilians from leaving a tiny area still held by the extremist group in a village in eastern Syria, a spokesman for the U.S.-backed Syrian militia fighting the group said Sunday.
“Regrettably, Daesh have closed all the roads,” Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, told The Associated Press, referring to the Islamic State by its Arabic acronym.
SDF officials have said the extremists are hiding among civilians in a tented village and using a network of caves and tunnels. Islamic State, which once ruled a proto-state in large parts of Syria and Iraq, is clinging to an area less than a square kilometre in the village of Baghouz, in eastern Syria.
The extremists may include high-level commanders, and could be holding hostages among those trapped inside.
Occasional coalition airstrikes and clashes continue inside the village of Baghouz. Artillery rounds were meant to clear land mines for the SDF fighters to advance. SDF commanders say the end of Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate is near.
“We will very soon bring good news to the whole world,” Ciya Furat, an SDF commander, said Saturday at a news conference at the al-Omar Oil Field Base, miles away from Baghouz in the Deir el-Zour province.
The capture of the last pocket of territory held by Islamic State in either Syria or Iraq would mark the end of a devastating four-year global campaign to end the extremist group’s so-called caliphate. At the height of their power in 2014, the extremists controlled nearly one-third of both countries.
But experts and U.S. defence officials warn that the group still poses a major threat and could regroup within six months if pressure is not kept up.
Thousands of Islamic State fighters and their families have emerged from the last bastion held by the group in the past few months. The SDF is holding around 1,000 foreign fighters in lockups and camps in northern Syria, and their fate is a major concern, particularly as American troops prepare to withdraw from Syria.
The Kurds want their countries to take them back, and the U.S. has called on Europeans to repatriate and put them on trial.
Mr. Trump repeated that call in a tweet Saturday.
“The United States is asking Britain, France, Germany and other European allies to take back over 800 ISIS fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial. The Caliphate is ready to fall,” Trump posted. He suggested the alternative would be that the United States would be forced to release them.
“We do so much, and spend so much. Time for others to step up and do the job that they are so capable of doing. We are pulling back after 100% Caliphate victory!” he added.
However, European nations are leery of Mr. Trump’s request.
For example, a 19-year-old woman who left Britain to join the Islamic State group and who recently spoke out about wanting to return home has given birth to a boy in a refugee camp in Syria, a lawyer for her family said Sunday.
The woman, Shamima Begum, had recently fled the last remaining village held by the terrorist group in Syria. Before giving birth, she spoke to a reporter for The Times of London about wanting to return home to protect the health of her child.
The lawyer, Tasnime Akunjee, said in a statement that though Ms. Begum’s family had not spoken directly to her, “we understand that both she and the baby are in good health.”
Ms. Begum’s comments set off a fierce debate in Britain about the country’s obligations to a woman who was lured as a 15-year-old student to marry into the Islamic State. She was one of three schoolgirls, including Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase, from Bethnal Green Academy who left Britain to travel to Syria in February, 2015.
British officials had said soon after they travelled to Syria that the women would be allowed to return home without facing charges because there was no evidence they had committed terrorism offenses. But they held to a harder line this past week, with Home Secretary Sajid Javid saying that he would not hesitate to prevent the return of those who supported terrorist groups abroad.
It is not clear how Ms. Begum may be trying to get home.
Ben Wallace, Britain’s security minister, said this past week that British officials would not help rescue Ms. Begum because it was too dangerous to provide consular services in Syria. He warned that anyone who had traveled to support terrorism against the British government’s advice would, upon returning, be “questioned, investigated and potentially prosecuted for committing terrorist offenses.”
In Germany, government officials played down the likelihood of Berlin meeting the demands made by Mr. Trump.
“In principle, all German citizens and those suspected of having fought for so-called IS have the right to return,” said a spokeswoman for Germany’s interior ministry, adding, however, that the condition for that was consular access for suspects.
She said Iraq had shown an interest in having some Islamic State fighters from Germany put on trial. “But in Syria, the German government cannot guarantee legal and consular duties for jailed German citizens due to the armed conflict there,” she said.
Some 1,050 people have travelled from Germany to the war zone in Syria and Iraq since 2013 and about one-third have already returned to Germany, according to German authorities.